Another kind of less is more

I know I keep on going on going on about Simon Caulkin, but he does write some good stuff. Last Sunday’s piece, “Adrift in a parallel universe” was filled with gems. I think my favourite was this one:
“Is management a hoax? In a recent survey of 3.5 million employees worldwide, research firm Sirota Survey Intelligence found that most workers did their best work when managers were out of the way. Management bureaucracy, blame-placing, inconsistent decision-making, delaying and time-wasting all interfered with their ability to do their work properly. In other words, the less management the better.”

It reminded me of one of the findings from research Shoshana Zuboff did in the 80s and wrote up in “In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power” published in 1988. She found a similar phenomenon in the recently computerised Pulp Mills, where the night shift, less interfered with by managers, was more productive than the day shift.
Caulkin’s main point was the disjunction between management speak and what is actually happening. I would take it a little further him. I have a great admiration for managers, who are some of the most creative people around. The problem is our confusion of language. Most of the people who are labeled “managers” aren’t. They are administrators and apparatchiks, whose language reflects their bureaucratic nature.
Now there is nothing wrong with administrators and administration, indeed they play an important part in maintaining the stability of organisations. The problem comes when what they do is confused with management, which it frequently is and where we can see that their role becomes one of subtracting value from an organisation rather than adding it.
Maybe the answer is to start a campaign for real managers?

Egotism, adversarialism and melodrama

Some months ago I wrote a longish entry, filled with good links, “Creativity and conversation”. One of them was to Douglas Rushkoff’s blog where he describes giving five talks in the UK about his Demos book, Open Source Democracy. What struck him was that, “instead of engaging in conversation, most of these folks played high school debate. This sort of banter looks fun when it’s people playing ‘Parliament’ on TV, but it’s not so very productive.” He went on to describe his frustration about the way “The majority of government ministers with whom I spoke seemed bent on finding ways to prevent themselves from considering new ideas – as if even wrapping their minds around a new concept for a even a moment would wreck the sanctity of their current established methodology.”

I was reminded of this by an article by Martin Kettle in the Guardian, who was talking about Robin Cook’s gifts as a conversationalist. Drawing heavily on an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, Kettle contrasts Stevenson’s enthusiasm for the virtues of conversation with what passes for public talk today:
“… it seems to me that our public talk in this country is now being relentlessly drained of the elements that make such talk rewarding. Politicians, indeed, are now trained specifically not to answer interviewers’ questions. Instead they are told to remain focused on making the predetermined points in the party ‘line to take’. Their interrogators are no better, seeking little more than to hector, embarrass and oversimplify. The consensual creativity and freedom of true talkers, trusting and trusted, is wholly absent, almost wholly subordinated to egotism, adversarialism and melodrama.”

I will leave the last word to Stevenson, which despite to modern ears carrying the implication that good conversation is something that just takes place among men, which is certainly contradicted by my experience, is something of a delight :
“THERE can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be affable, gay, ready, clear and welcome; to have a fact, a thought, or an illustration, pat to every subject; and not only to cheer the flight of time among our intimates, but bear our part in that great international congress, always sitting, where public wrongs are first declared, public errors first corrected, and the course of public opinion shaped, day by day, a little nearer to the right. No measure comes before Parliament but it has been long ago prepared by the grand jury of the talkers; no book is written that has not been largely composed by their assistance. Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect. There are always two to a talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually “in further search and progress”; while written words remain fixed, become idols even to the writer, found wooden dogmatisms, and preserve flies of obvious error in the amber of the truth. Last and chief, while literature, gagged with linsey-woolsey, can only deal with a fraction of the life of man, talk goes fancy free and may call a spade a spade. Talk has none of the freezing immunities of the pulpit. It cannot, even if it would, become merely aesthetic or merely classical like literature. A jest intervenes, the solemn humbug is dissolved in laughter, and speech runs forth out of the contemporary groove into the open fields of nature, cheery and cheering, like schoolboys out of school. And it is in talk alone that we can learn our period and ourselves. In short, the first duty of a man is to speak; that is his chief business in this world; and talk, which is the harmonious speech of two or more, is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money; it is all profit; it completes our education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost any state of health.”

A little bit of history

I’ve been meaning to point to ITConversations for a while, because they feature some fascinating talks by people like, Malcolm Gladwell, Douglas Rushkoff, Grant McCracken and many others. What prompted me to actually do it was listening to a two part talk by Steve Wozniak today. A fascinating bit of history, which probably bears listening to several times to pick-up some of the important lessons it contains. You can download Part One here and Part Two Here.

Hitched to the Universe

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Flicking through Google looking for things on cybernetics, I found this nice quote from John Muir on Alan B. Scrivener‘s “A Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems Theory”, which has a lot of other good stuff on it.
The Muir quote is from Chapter 6 of his ” My First Summer in the Sierra published 1911 accessible on-line from the Sierra Club. The paragraph below puts the quote in context. (For those like myself of a non-theistic disposition substitute something like ‘the wonder of existence’ for his references to ‘the Divine” and ‘God’ and we have a great example of network thinking.)
“The snow on the high mountains is melting fast, and the streams are singing bankfull, swaying softly through the level meadows and bogs, quivering with sun-spangles, swirling in pot-holes, resting in deep pools, leaping, shouting in wild, exulting energy over rough boulder dams, joyful, beautiful in all their forms. No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste; everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons. This quick, inevitable interest attaching to everything seems marvelous until the hand of God becomes visible; then it seems reasonable that what interests Him may well interest us. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow-mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains–beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.”

Soviet style management

Another corker from Simon Caulkin:
‘… Why is so much that managers do a waste of time, if not worse? And why do they still persist in trying to make it work? To Answer the second question first: because we’re locked in. Precisely because we all know things don’t work, a whole ecology of improvers – consultants, IT vendors, outsourcers and peddlers of tools of all descriptions – has grown up with a promise to make it better. Everyone has a vested interest in the setup, even business schools producing the research that discredits it.
The reason that none of these things work, and never will, is that they are being put to the service of a clapped-out model. The paradox of today’s capitalism is that we’re still trying to manage it by central planning. Managers at any corporate headquarters or ministry in Whitehall would have been quite at home in the Soviet ministry of planning. They estimate what the market will be, allocate resources and schedule production to match the estimate.”

More like a web than a diary

Nearly a year ago I wrote a short piece in which I said:
“Now I don’t know if this is just me, but the problem I see with the blog as a form is that the focus is always on the latest entries. There is little to encourage you to explore the site as a whole. I know if I arrive at a blog and there hasn’t been a new entry for a while, I tend to move on somewhere else. Of course, with some blogs this makes sense, their focus is very much on the current, on what’s happening now. But with others, this makes less sense. Something they talked about three months ago, or a year ago, or even longer may be equally as interesting as something they are talking about today. So I guess the question I end with is how could a blog look more like a web than a diary?”
I still don’t have an answer to my question, but David Auerbach (is this him?) has some interesting entries exploring blogs as a genre, here and here and here .

Not a blank slate

One of my greatest pleasures is when I come across someone, who is saying something I have been banging on about for years, but doing so with greater clarity and elegance than I have ever been able to manage.
My most recent experience of this is in an interview in Edge, where Dan Sperber,a French anthropologist, makes this point about human communication:
“Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox machine copying contents from one mind to another. This is where I part company not just from your standard semiologists or social scientists who take communication to be a coding-decoding system, a transmission system, biased only by social interests, by power, by intentional or unconscious distortions, but that otherwise could deliver a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based on a process of replication, and who assume that imitation and communication provide a robust replication system.”

and a little later
“From the point of view of the audience, a speaker is providing rich pieces of evidence, which we interpret in a context of shared background knowledge, drawing on the common cultural, on the local situation, on the ongoing conversation, and so on. You construct a complex representation helped by all these different factors. You to end up with something which will have been strongly guided, sometimes guided in an exquisitely detailed manner, by the communication, by the words used by the speaker, but which end up being a thought of your own, relevant to you, a recognition, to begin with, of what the speaker meant, from which you extract what is relevant to you.”

Read the whole interview. My sense is that the implications of this view of human communication are immense and worth pondering on for a while.